The first unmanned attack squadron in aviation history will arrive in Iraq today looking to deliver 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles to the enemy - all from the comfort of a US Air Force base in Nevada.
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper can be controlled via satellite link thousands of miles away from operational areas. The planes are launched locally, in this case Iraq and Afghanistan, but can be controlled by a pilot and sensor operator sitting at computer consoles in a ground station, or they can be "handed off" via satellite signals to pilots and sensor operators in Nevada's Creech Air Force Base or elsewhere.
The MQ-9 Reaper is the Air Force's first hunter-killer unmanned aircraft. It is the big brother to the highly successful and sometimes controversial Predator aircraft, which General Atomics said this week had flown over 300,000 flight hours, with over 80% of that time spent in combat.
The company said Predator series aircraft have flown an average of 8,200 hours per month over the past six months while maintaining the highest operational readiness rates in the U.S. military aircraft inventory. The MQ-9 Reaper is twice as fast as the Predator - it has a 900-horsepower turbo-prop engine, compared to the 119-horsepower Predator engine - and can carry far more ordnance - 14 Hellfire missiles as opposed to two.
At five tons gross weight, the Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator. Its size - 36 feet long, with a 66-foot wingspan - is comparable to the profile of the Air Force's workhorse A-10 attack plane. It can fly twice as fast and twice as high - 25,000ft compared to 50,000ft - as the Predator.
According to the Air Force, the MQ-9 Reaper will employ sensors to find, fix, track and target critical emerging time sensitive targets. The Air Force is developing the ability to operate multiple aircraft from a single ground station, in effect, multiplying the overall combat effectiveness over the battlefield.
General Atomics has built at least nine of the MQ-9s at a cost of $69 million per set of four aircraft, with ground equipment. The Air Force's 432nd Wing, a UAV unit formally established May 1, is to eventually fly 60 Reapers and 160 Predators. The numbers to be assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan will be classified, the Associated Press says.